It’s amazing how frequently a “Top 4” team in the English Premier League can be teetering on the brink of crisis.
Entering into this past weekend’s series of fixtures, it was Chelsea facing the crisis. If you bothered to listen to certain people, you might have been persuaded that they were a club in danger of getting relegated if they didn’t get a result against Aston Villa. It led me to think about our addiction to crises and the media’s fixation on Arsenal’s maturity. Crisis and maturity are two words we have grown so accustomed to hearing that we’ve lost touch with their respective meanings.
Looking at Arsenal’s last four games, much of the media and fan response has had all the trappings of a kid struggling at school with ADHD.
After losing 1-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford, Arsenal was a team incapable of challenging against the other big sides, and therefore, was incapable of winning the league. Arsene Wenger’s side was labeled a team that has not learned anything over the last few years. This argument was bolstered by a lovely statistic. Coming into the United game, Arsenal had recorded a grand total of zero wins in their last ten encounters against Manchester United or Chelsea. Crisis.
Fourteen days later, Chelsea, a side that was admittedly struggling, but that always seems to have Arsenal’s number, came to the Emirates. Ninety minutes later, the final whistle sounded, and Arsenal, a side that had seemingly learned nothing over the past five years, walked out 3-1 winners. All of a sudden, within the span of two weeks, Arsenal was a team that could challenge for the title. They were a different, more mature team, a team now capable of handling the physical rigors of the league. Great result. No more crisis.
Two days later, Arsenal took a trip up to the DW Stadium to face Wigan, a daunting away trip with all the familiar symptoms of defeat. It was a cold, somber day against a boringly-described physical side. References to “midfield steel” were bound to assault the eardrums. The typical Arsenal narrative was ready to unfold. Wenger made eight changes to the side that faced Chelsea. Ninety minutes later, Arsenal mustered a 2-2 draw against 10-man Wigan. Once again, it was the same old Arsenal, unable to square up against those tough, physical teams. Arsenal was, once again, immature. Crisis.
Four days later, Arsenal faced a Birmingham side at St. Andrews that had only lost one league match at home in fifteen months. The conditions were not that different from the conditions Arsenal faced a few days earlier at Wigan. There was the cold, the rain, and the same physical language used to describe any team that is supposedly technically inferior to Arsenal. Only this time, Arsenal, fielding a stronger side, won 3-0. It was a mature display. Crisis averted.
Over a three week span, Arsenal has been immature, mature, immature, and mature again. Arsenal started the three week span at top of the table, one point above Manchester United. Two matures and two immatures later, Arsenal are third in the table, two points behind United. So have they weathered this crisis of maturity or not? Or was there ever really a crisis?
Crisis and questions of maturity should be reserved for crises and displays of immaturity. Not every loss falls into these categories. Arsenal are not the same team they were two years ago, or even a year ago. But you wouldn’t get that sense from the numerous pundits and fans that have become slaves to pre-existing narratives about maturity and crises.
Regardless of how Arsenal drop points, lazy punditry puts the result down to maturity, as if a mature Arsenal team is one that collects three points from every game. Contrast that with when Chelsea or Manchester United drop points. If you listen to the pundits, maturity is rarely the issue when these two teams slip.
The reality is that there are several reasons why teams lose, maturity, at times, being one of them. If Rio Ferdinand or John Terry get caught out of position in the same way as Laurent Koscielny, it is ridiculous to say that only one of the three defenders faltered because he lacked maturity, while the other two simply got beat.
Continuing these simplistic narratives out of reflex may be an efficient way for pundits to analyze a game without too much brain activity, but ultimately, it is a disservice to fans, particularly those who see the pitfalls — sounding crazy and as if you have no idea what you are talking about — of vacillating between crisis and title contender every other week. These narratives sell stories and keep readers coming back for more, but they don’t always make for an accurate diagnosis.
So why do we listen to these people? Sadly, because more often than not, these voices are part of the pre-assembled football package. These are easy, fashionable opinions that keep a narrative moving and often require little thought to express. So we have to be smarter. We have to be smart enough to push back against cries of crisis and immaturity. We have to expect pundits to explain the crisis or lack of maturity, and why, in spite of all the doomsday scenarios, Arsenal are only two points off the pace before we accept their opinions as fact. Things are not perfect, but crises or issues of immaturity have rarely been the problem for Arsenal this season.